Friday, January 1, 2010

Rethinking Philanthropy

Recently I heard a 4th year medical student, a veteran of global health activities, chatting with excitement about her upcoming brief trip to the border between Thailand and Burma, in which she will develop an education program for the refugees during the 2-3 week duration of her trip.

My feeling as a Thai native was far from enthusiasm. The Northern border has become a revolving door of NGOs - the whole area has now thrived mostly on businesses catering to foreigners and sometimes I wonder if the town is inhabited by more "philanthropic tourists" than Thais and refugees. But the sheer invasion was not what irked me - it was the motives behind the influx of these philanthropic tourists.

Consider the individual level - exemplified by this medical student. Many foreigners visit without ties to NGOs in the area, hoping to do good during their time off. Most of these visits are brief - none of the visitors intend to stay permanently or even for a long period of time. They come at their convenience, not based on the timing of various needs of the refugees. They come with their preconceived ideas of what needs to be done, they come up with their own ideas of how things should be solved, and they marched into the sometimes unknowing, defenseless receptive arms of refugees, who, after their ordeal, would take any help they can get, even if that help is a bandage for the gushing cut wound that distracts away from stitches that would eventually save them from exsanguination. They somehow think that their ideas are different from others and that only they are suitable for the job - this usually results in fragmented, duplicate efforts competing for resources and creating confusion for refugees. These visitors leave, not when projects are finished or outcomes are improved, but when staying becomes inconvenienced by obligations back home. They leave and usually never turn back to look what exactly they left behind.

These issues are amplified by NGOs. Most NGOs are not so quick to enter or leave as individuals, as dinosaurs move at a slower pace than people, but the issues remain - egoism, lack of needs assessment, fragmentation/duplication, competition for resources, lack of continuity and distraction from long-term/meaningful changes, lack of accountability, and most disappointing of all, the focus on the agenda of foreigners instead of that of refugees.

We might be fooling ourselves to think that parachuting donated items or good-willed people into a needy area for a short period of time will create real change. The problem of parachuting pervades most NGO efforts, since help comes from outside and not from within. When was the last time a sanction on the Burmese government eradicated the corrupted generals? Do we expect to establish a peaceful nation by marching troops in, capturing the tyrant, then picking up our suitcases and leaving the newly-freed citizens to their own devices?

Look at China and Africa - the two are not so different. Both are plagued by human rights issues, bad health outcomes, pollution. But how come no one feels sorry for China? I don't see hoards of NGOs rushing to the aid of the Chinese people, and who do you think will emerge a victor in the next decade?

If we learned anything from our lesson in Iraq, it is that these are not our fights. The real victory springs from within the very people we are trying to help, not from us, and our only appropriate role as altruistic individuals is to empower people to fight their own battles. Empowerment is a lengthy and delicate process - one that will be damaged by parachuting, because failure and abandonment leave their marks on the faith of these fragile population.

So the next time you think about helping other countries in need, think about what you actually are doing. Think if your help is a quick fix that takes away from meaningful changes. Think if your good will might be disruptive to the real progress that needs to be made.

And most importantly, be honest and think to whom this altruistic act is really aiming for. It is not ok for you to feel better about yourselves at the expense of the disadvantaged. Remember, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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